'Miss Conduct' Addresses All Sides Of Wedding Gift Anxiety

By Robin Abrahams


June 14, 2011

(Photo: coolnumber9/Flickr)

BOSTON -- Wedding season is upon us, and we all know that planning a wedding, or even attending one, can be nerve-racking. Thankfully, WGBH's resident etiquette guru Robin Abrahams stopped by The Emily Rooney Show to take calls and help alleviate some of the anxiety. She came with tips for how to navigate the tricky world of wedding gifts -- how to properly ask for, give and receive them.

All involved have doubts on the subject, as demonstrated by an open thread on Abrahams' 'Miss Conduct' blog for the Boston Globe. Commenters vented their confusions and curiosities: is it okay to ask for cash gifts? Is it really true that giving knives can cut friendships? -- though that part may just be superstition.

The following are some of Abrahams' best tips, and some of the callers' notable questions and experiences.

Abrahams' "1st Commandment" -- The rule of thumb for how much to spend on a gift comes with a formula: (Your closeness to the couple + their level of need) / your income. "Weddings are not fundraisers," she said.

A caller asked about how to respond to requests for $85 towels (or "Turkish bath sheets"), or a $60 asparagus steamer. Abrahams said it's okay to follow your spendthrift instincts. "That towel better soak up depression and ennui as well as spills," she said.

Asking for cash gifts -- It is acceptable and increasingly common, and is traditional among certain cultures. And yet: "I am generally opposed to straight-out, coming out and saying that," Abrahams said.

Cash gifts can be good for an older couple, who may be looking to save up for a house or other expenses. "Get the word out through your bridesmaids or groomsmen," she said. "That's one that you're supposed to sort of spread about through gossip -- not straight-up say, 'Hey, fork over the Benjamins.'"

A caller said she and her husband -- an older couple at the time -- didn't register, assuming people would either give what they could manage or give cash. Abrahams said this is appropriate, and suggested that guests look to give consumable gifts, like passes to the MFA, theater tickets or a Netflix subscription. "If you're over the age of 25, chances are you have enough stuff," she said.

2nd Commandment -- You can go off the script. Registries were originally about helping young couples set up their homes. "Some people feel like that's not creative enough," Abrahams said. It is fine to take a different route if you either feel closer to the couple and want to give something personal, or if the registry is beyond your budget. Which leads us to the...

3rd Commandment -- "Creativity and personal meaning can trump and make up for lack of money spent."

Disguising a gift in a new box -- "Re-boxing is fine," Abrahams said, "but not with deceitful intents." One commenter received a set of goblets in a Tiffany's box. The recipient didn't feel they were her style, yet when she tried to return them, they were apparently not from Tiffany's at all but rather from a (much more modestly priced) big-box store.

Beyond your budget -- What if the items on the registry offend one's spend-thrift sensibilities, a caller asked? What about $85 towels ("a Turkish bath-sheet"), or a $60 asparagus-steamer? Abrahams says you have to just buy what you can afford. "That towel better soak up depression and ennui as well as spills."

Do your research -- One caller received an ugly vase from Nieman-Marcus, and tried to return it but the store couldn't find the item in the catalog. As it turns out, it was a special-edition item that was worth a good deal more than the small compensation the store could offer. People have to put the proper research into what they're buying, Abrahams said, and to be ready with that information if necessary.

Going the distance -- Another caller wondered if, when a couple asks guests to fly long-distance or even internationally, one's presence might be gift enough. Abrahams said this is fine, though she added that the problem may be avoidable, since a gift doesn't have to be expensive. 

"Your presence is enough at any wedding, but wouldn't you always want there to be a little bit more to remember that presence by?" she said. "I mean, come on, you're blowing all that money for a trip to China, and you're not gonna pop out like an extra 20 bucks?" And the 5th Commandment, in this case, just to be safe: send presents in advance!

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